@stlchipotle Talks About Customer Service in More Than 140 Characters

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After posting last week about a bad customer service experience made better via Twitter, I asked St. Louis Chipotle marketing consultant Wayne Prichard (known as @stlchipotle on Twitter) if he had a few minutes to talk about social media and customer service.

Not only did he spare a few minutes, he invited me to lunch at the Delmar Loop Chipotle where, amid the noon-hour rush, he tackled the ideas of emerging technology, passivity, and the bottom line of doing what's right.

"In the huge, monolith corporations, the word 'humility' isn't in their vocabularies," Prichard explains between bites of carnitas tacos. "I'm in marketing. As a philosophy I don't like marketing at all, because for so long people have skewed it to mean something different than it was. We take a philosophy of openness and accessibility."

It's a philosophy that applies to the company's much-discussed sustainability practices as well as its interaction with customers, even though there's no definite company rule on the latter when it comes to emerging web technologies. Prichard's unsure if there's direct communication between the corporate Chipotle Twitter account (@ChipotleMedia) and the individual restaurants.

"Twitter's something we're still trying to get get our hands around. Like Chris [Arnold] has @ChipotleMedia. He uses that for press releases, links to articles. I started up mine as a way to do the same thing Chris is doing on a local level. I just want to be able to get the word out."

As a company, Chipotle gives its marketing staff a lot of freedom to use resources like Twitter and Facebook on their own while representing the company's brand. Their Facebook page, with more than 600,000 fans, wasn't created in a corporate meeting. It's the baby of marketing department member Colin Burns, who's based in Dallas.

"It's one of the responsibilities he's taken on because he digs it. What you'll see is Colin replies to a lot of things," Prichard says, and opens his laptop to the company's Facebook page. Burns, posting as "Chipotle Mexican Grill," has already responded to every wall post made in the past 30 minutes.

Prichard recognizes that the responsibility of staying connected with customers -- in person and virtually -- falls to Chipotle employees, especially if a dining experience isn't right.

"People by nature aren't necessarily confrontational," he says. "People tend to suffer in silence, and then they just don't go back. Everybody loses. You get a bad experience. You lose one restaurant that you go to in your repertoire of restaurants, and we lose your business.

"Even though we're in an age of paying at the pump, never seeing a bank teller, people do want human interaction, whether they know it or not," Prichard continues. "And to have someone say, 'I'm sorry. We screwed up. I'm going to fix it. I'm not going to give you a free side of guacamole. I'm going to give you a free meal' -- companies don't realize the value of that."

He understands the nature of scorned diners. "'I'm sorry we overcooked your $24 steak. Here's a coupon for a free slice of chocolate cake next time you're here.' That's not a deal. It's not genuine. Frankly, why don't you save the time, save the chocolate cake, slap me in the face and send me on my way? I'll pay the bill, I won't tip you, and you'll never get another dollar from me again. If people have a good experience, they'll tell one or two people. If it's bad, they'll tell ten. They do want to be passive with the restaurant manager. People are not passive with their friends.

"It should be easy to address a problem, and we should be proactive and have a manager touch each table. People look at that like it's amazing customer service. No, it's not. It's the fricking baseline of customer service. That's the minimum you can do."

While the immediacy and passivity afforded by Twitter and Facebook are helpful for customers airing grievances and management responses, Prichard doesn't see it taking the place of those manager visits to each table. "The new technologies might help us get more of of those 'wow' moments, and we need to capitalize on that. We definitely want to use that, but we don't want to just migrate to it. We've got to have people in the restaurants who understand that every $6 burrito you sell is a couple of pennies on your paycheck.

"You must treasure these customers, because how many dining options do you have? These people aren't just important to us. They are vital. If we don't let them know that they are vital to our success and interact with their lives, we're not going to resonate with them. It sounds weird to say we have a meaningful relationship with our customers, but that's the way it's been for hundreds of years."

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